Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Local Science

The past couple centuries have brought stunning technical transformations in almost every facet of our lives. The fruits we enjoy, e.g. internet access, are provided through complex networks of industrial processes that are based on very significant extraction of raw materials such as fossil fuels and metal ores, while at the same time emitting many waste products from carbon dioxide to solid plastic debris etc. A finite planet cannot support unlimited increases in rates of extraction and pollution. There are surely sustainable rates, at least for some materials, but these sustainable rates are very likely much lower than our present rates. Perhaps we will find much more efficient ways to provide the fruits we enjoy, so the rates of extraction and pollution can be brought down to sustainable levels without impacting our lifestyles. The possibility does seem quite real though, that change, by choice or necessity, will not be limited to factories. Changes in technology have changed our lives in the past, and seem very likely to continue to do so in the future.

A cornerstone of the modern transformation of our world is the feedback loop between science and industry. Advances in our scientific understanding of how the world works enable industrial processes to be designed to exploit that new understanding. In turn, industrial advances provide ever more powerful tools which scientists can use to probe more deeply into phenomena, enabling further scientific advances. But industrial power depends on more than science; it requires access to resources, legal and economic support, etc. If we are indeed entering an age of limits, industry will most likely be producing a significantly reduced range and volume of output. This will impact science.

What will science look like in a post-industrial world? Is there a range of possibilities? Can we somehow steer ourselves toward some happier among the alternatives? These questions are not limited to science, of course. Our entire way of living is going to be different in a post-industrial world. The way we live is both the way that we enact our choices, and a reflection of the outcomes of those choices. The same duality holds in science.

It may be a difficult idea, the notion that we have any choice in how we do science. Scientists observe the world and report on what they see. To the extent that science is such a direct and honest mirror of reality, introducing a notion of choice seems to imply some suggestion of departure from the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But science is an active human process, steered by choices at every step. For example, at the most intimate level, a scientist decides where to focus their attention. At the social level, various institutions decide which scientists and which research projects to support.

One way that people are responding to and respecting resource limits is to return to a more local way of life. This means less reliance on trade across great distances, and cultivation of richer person to person relationships with local community. When we rely less on local community, we rely more on large bureaucratic institutions. These institutions tend to be blind to the rich details of people’s lives and to focus on just a few bottom line statistical summaries. Large institutions also concentrate power, which generally fosters a greater degree of corruption, where the institution begins to promote its own welfare above that of the public it is intended to serve. Such corruption often involves distortion of the measures of the institutions effectiveness, steering institutional action to its own benefit. This kind of institutional blindness surely deserves a significant share of blame in our inability to respond effectively to the various challenges of resource limits. The benefits of resource exploitation tend to be channeled more to those in power, while the costs are channeled to the powerless. Withdrawing support from these institutions can be both a way to reduce the planetary impact of resource exploitation as well as an adaptation to narrowing limits.

Science is in many ways a typical facet of life, having become ever more tied to large bureaucracies. Science needs to change, both to reduce planetary impact and to adapt to limits. But science has a deeper connection to global institutions. A cornerstone principle of modern science is the notion of the uniformity of scientific law. For example, helium atoms in a terrestrial laboratory will behave the same way as helium atoms in a distant star, so we can learn about the behavior of stars through experiments in a laboratory. If observations in one laboratory differ from those in another, there must be some uncontrolled variable to account for the different. Progress in science demands coordination and cross-checking of results from all corners of the world. Modern science by its very nature is an institution with global scale.

Science also provides a model and means for the functioning of global institutions. These global institutions stake their claims to power on coherent policy and uniform rational regulation. Scientific methods are used to coordinate the uniform regulations with the myriad operational details at the street level.

Given the deep connection between science and a global outlook, how might science develop in the approaching age of limits? Will we just continue to practice modern science with the same basic structure but simply with a reduced budget? Or is a new vision of science called for?

The idea of a new vision for science is surely not absurd. Our notion of science has changed over time, so it stands to reason that it can and likely will change again. Indeed, the modern vision of science arose with thinkers like Descartes and Bacon, at the same time that the global institutions of resource exploitation were being established. Our vision of science is a part of our larger world vision. We seem very likely headed for a restructuring of our vision of humanity’s proper role on earth. A new vision for science will almost inevitably arise as a part of this.

We have built up such a solid structure of defenses around our modern vision of science that entertaining alternate visions can be very difficult. A classic tactic is the straw man. If science is not this, it must be that. But that is clearly unsupportable, so science must truly be this after all. But perhaps science is neither this nor that. The alternatives beyond the simple polar extremes are often subtler and more difficult to express or even to conceive with any clarity. But to face our future effectively, perhaps no easy solution will suffice.

To instill courage and confidence in those who might choose to explore less easy alternatives, I would like to point to the tradition of Buddhism. Buddhism is known as the Middle Way, exactly because it cultivates the subtle path that avoids the simple extremes. A new vision for science, appropriate for an age of limits, is not going to be found in any traditional Buddhist text. Surely the development of such a new vision will require every intellectual resource available. But some core Buddhist principles, such as the distinction between relative and ultimate truths, may be found very well suited for building foundations, having already demonstrated their value and robustness over a wide range of human history and geography.

I would like to propose a founding principle for a new vision of science, that a healthy science is one that is not only local in its community relationships but also local in its operational and intellectual goals. The quest for universal laws of nature should be demoted to an auxiliary status. Real knowledge is local knowledge. Abstract general principles certainly have their use and value, but their value is reduced as their generality grows: too much of the rich taste of direct engagement is sacrificed to gain the scope.

A related principle is the notion of tacit knowledge described by Michael Polanyi. Real knowledge is not merely words and numbers in a book, but living practice that is driven by that text and then in turn verifies and regenerates the text. Just like a species alive today is not meaningfully superior to some other species long extinct, the scientific knowledge of today is not meaningfully superior to some other extinct knowledge of the past, nor is it inferior. In five hundred years, it may well be impossible to perform experiments that demonstrate the existence and properties of the Higgs boson. This in itself doesn’t make the science of that future time better or worse. Science needs to be rooted in the human experiences of its place and time.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Well Regulated Militia

I've been reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, which hasn't put me in any optimistic mood regarding the prospects for creating a society where wholesale violence is absent. All the same, there is clearly great variation across time and space in the frequency and scale of such violence. This variation must have causes and therefore be subject to some degree of control. Surely we can find a way to do better than we presently are!

It seems to me that the root of the problem is our gun culture. There is no way we are going to be able to divide people up into the good people who should be allowed or encouraged to own guns, and the bad people who should be discouraged or forbidden. It's not just that it is difficult to figure out who is good and who is bad; each of us is a complex evolving combination of good and bad elements. But again, this kind of variation opens the door to the possibility of steering the mix. I cannot imagine our gun culture evaporating over any small number of decades. But it is always changing. We can choose the sort of gun culture we want and take action to bring that about.

The constitutional objective of a well regulated militia points us along a viable path of responsible gun ownership. A gun is by design a lethal weapon. Gun owners need to be responsible users of lethal weapons. This clearly implies a level of training that is not trivial or elementary. Components of such a training regime could include:

  • psychological tools for managing anger and depression
  • dispute resolution
  • non-lethal self-defense
  • physical conditioning
  • laws regarding gun usage
  • target shooting
  • gun cleaning
  • gun storage and transport

Maintaining a permit to own guns could require regular continuing training and regular testing, e.g. a yearly course and a test every five years.

We can transform our gun culture from a national disgrace to a source of national pride. A culture of sober responsibility should spawn vastly fewer senseless mass killings.